Sue Baker catches up with an old friend - the Sinclair C5
‘Come down the hill, around the mini roundabout, stop by the camera and tell us what you think …’
A small smile played on John Humphrys’ face as he said it, clearly happier beside his BBC camera than where I sat. As well he might be. Tightly wedged in the single seat of a plastic-bodied micro-car, I swung into the roundabout, lurched onto two of the little vehicle’s three wheels, and thumped back down again level with his foot.
‘Well I really don’t have to ask what that was like, Sue, because we could all see,” said news broadcasting’s national treasure. Too exuberant a test drive? Hardly. It wasn’t even at top speed, which was a sizzling – breathe in – 15 miles per hour!
It was the mid-1980s, and we were in the grounds of Alexandra Palace in North London, for an event bigged up as a trip into the future. This was the hugely hyped launch of the Sinclair C5, designed by celebrated inventor Sir Clive Sinclair. Assembled in a South Wales washing machine factory, it was pioneering what would soon become a popular new range of electric vehicles, we were told. Yeah, right.
First impressions were somewhat muted. Inside Ally Pally, the assembled media cynics viewed the rather cheesy choreography of parading C5s in hushed scepticism. Was this the silent, single-seater future of urban mobility? Surely not. At 2 ft 7 ins long, it looked like a slightly scaled-up child’s pedal car. Too small, too low-slung, too vulnerable, too impractical, we collectively grumped. Has anyone told Sir Clive it rains most days in Britain? Well, usually, anyway.
As for the driving position, it involved stepping through a door-less gap and squatting into the dubious comfort of a hard plastic seat. Behind your back was the ‘powerful’ motor, all 12 volts and 250 watts of it, with a power output of – drum roll – 0.34 hp! Yes, that’s a decimal point. A fraction of one horsepower. To get going, you grasped motorbike-style handlebars sited either side of your bent knees, and the means of steering the single front wheel. Squeeze the starter/throttle control in your left hand, and off you go. Or more accurately, trundle.
There’s a faint whirring as you accelerate away, and it’s mildly entertaining to have a jogging-pace breeze skimming your face. Windscreen? Don’t be cissy. Driving on the flat or downhill is fine. An uphill slope? Diversion time, or you have start furiously rotating the bicycle-style pedals concealed in the C5’s blunt white nose.
So, whatever happened to this visionary little 1980s pioneer? Predictions back then for the success of the brave new world electric uni-car mooted an annual production of 100,000, with other models to come. Er, not quite. At £428, delivery included, the eccentric C5 found few buyers. Production ceased after seven months, when Sinclair Vehicles went bust. Just 14,000 were made.
Calendar-flip three decades, and how does the Sinclair C5 look now with a 21st century perspective? I wanted to re-visit the C5, and drove a borrowed one on quiet back roads in rural Kent, a time warp forward from the big shoulder pad days of the 1980s. Memory lane was an interesting trip.
Visually, it has shrugged the passage of time surprisingly well. Technically, it was well ahead of its time, when the only electric vehicles most of us had ever seen were milk floats. Today, with electric cars whisperingly common in the traffic, the C5 seems slightly more sane but still quite weird, wacky, and just a bit crazy.
Whatever I breathlessly said to John Humphrys on that first test drive, it’s all still true.
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